A film review by Craig J. Koban November 2, 2015

ROCK THE KASBAH jj
 

2015, R, 121 mins.

 

Bill Murray as Richie Lanz  /  Zooey Deschanel as Ronnie  /  Taylor Kinney as Private Barnes  /  Sarah Baker as Maureen  /  Leem Lubany as Salima  /  Bruce Willis as Bombay Brian  /  Kate Hudson as Merci  /  Arian Moayed as Riza  /  Scott Caan as Jake  /  Danny McBride as Nick  /  Fahim Fazli as Tariq  /  Eugenia Kuzmina as Gulla

Directed by Barry Levinson  /  Written by Mitch Glazer

Barry Levinson’s ROCK THE KASBAH is one of the most bizarre comedies of recent memory.  It’s also one of the most misguided and messy ones at that.  

Much like AMERICAN DREAMZ, This film is attempting, I think, to be a scathing and thoughtful music scene satire that happens to place itself in the crosshairs of Middle Eastern war zone politics.  More or less, the only reason to see ROCK THE KASBAH is for the performance heroics of star Bill Murray, who singlehandledly gives what could have been a thoroughly unwatchable film a much needed jolt of interest.  Nobody plays loveable losers as well as Murray can, and even when Levinson’s grasp of the underlining material – and what he ultimately wants to do with it – seems shaky at best, it’s Murray’s improvisational wits and iconic presence alone that carries this disorderly and tone deaf film. 

Levinson at least stages a compelling opening scene that draws us in: We witness a young woman – adorned in a burka and hidden away in what’s presumed to be a cave in the Middle East – that hooks up a crude TV to a power source and begins to watch “Afghan Star,” which is an obvious “American Idol” clone for her country.  With the wide-eyed wonder of a child on the verge of discovering something for the first time, she’s positively hypnotized but what she’s watching.  The film then segues to America and the dilapidated Van Nuys offices of a hustler and a fraud named Richie Lanz (Murray), who was once a promising music manager that has now hit rock bottom so hard that he has to use a motel as his base of operations.  Richie is so pathetically down on his luck that he’s forced to coerce naive clients without a modicum of talent to write him retainer checks for his future services.  The manner with which he insults a young prospective woman’s lack of vocal skills while still managing to instill false confidence in her to sign with him is one of the film’s few hysterical highlights. 

 

 

All hope is not lost for Richie, as he does one last hopeful client in the form of his secretary (a scene stealing, but regrettably underused Zooey Deschanel) that does have a lovely voice, but is such an overall mess as a person that she barely registers with any tangible presence on stage.  Richie does have an epiphany one night when his client performs at a seedy bar, during which time her cover of a famous Meredith Brooks tune catches the attention of a local drunk that relays to Richie that she would be perfect for a USO tour in…Afghanistan.  Looking to score a quick buck as fast as humanly possible, Richie decides to book her – mostly against her wishes – for the tour, but when they arrive in the foreign country the local customs and culture spook her so much that she flees their hotel room…and with all of Richie’s money and passport. 

The ever-desperate Richie, penniless, in a land that he doesn’t fully comprehend and without a means of leaving (at least in the short term), decides to make the best out of his dire circumstances.  He finds himself hooking up with a local prostitute Merci (Kate Hudson) and even gets involved in some of the shady dealings of some local weapons dealers (Scott Caan and Danny McBride).  He decides – mostly out of the need for money – to take some of the gunrunners’ equipment out to a local village with a grizzled mercenary (Bruce Willis) in tow.  While trying to broker a deal with the Afghan tribe he comes in contact with the same girl – yup! – from the beginning of the film, only this time she’s belting out angelic covers of American songs in the cave.  Salima (Leem Lubany) just may be Richie’s official meal ticket, and a legitimate one seeing as she’s inordinately talented.  This leads Richie to hatching a Hail Mary plan to get her on “Afghan Live,” without fully realizing the cultural and social ramifications of having woman sing on national television when it’s largely frowned upon in her nation. 

It takes ROCK THE KASBAH an awfully long time to build up to Richie’s chance meeting with Salima, but once it does the film manages to develop some dramatic and thematic interest.  Murray, as already stated, brings what he can to some otherwise troubling material as only he knows how.  He has to play multiple scenes that require huge comedic punchlines and don’t deliver them, but with his trademark mischievous quirkiness he garners laughs out of the most throwaway lines (“I’m not a loser…I’m a quitter!”).  The other performance highlight in the film is from Lubany, a Palestinian actress that appeared in the Oscar nominated 2013 film OMAR.  There reaches a point in ROCK THE KASBAH where none of the other characters built around Murray were able to command my rooting interest, but when Lubany appears she becomes a spirited late breaking saving grace for the story. 

The overall script, though, for ROCK THE KASBAH (by Mitch Grazer, whom previously penned another Murray lead comedy in SCROOGED) is kind of a jumbled and convoluted disaster, which is made all the more depressing considering that the film took seven years to get off of the ground.  Supporting characters manage to somehow appear and then disappear (some never to be heard from again) at will, like Deschanel’s floozy singer and Caan and McBride’s arms dealers.  Bruce Willis brings what could have been some macho gravitas to film, but instead is reduced to playing in Murray’s shadow delivering banal dialogue that any actor could have mustered.  Only Hudson’s Merci manages to fare as well as Richie and Salima in the film, even though I’m still struggling with what her overall purpose was in the story, other than for romantic interest purposes.  Murray and Hudson are also really mismatched here, especially considering that he’s old enough to be her grandfather. 

Levinson’s handling of the Afghan people is both noble minded and paradoxically offensive.  There are certainly efforts on his part to not develop the country’s citizens as one-note and crudely rendered stereotypes, but he then sort of falls back to the latter when the script deems it convenient (especially in relation to Salima’s domineering father).  There are instances when ROCK THE KASBAH feels like its pure science fiction on the reality front.  The notion of an American coming to Afghanistan to teach the country to respect women and the arts is questionably believable  – not to mention racially/culturally insensitive - at its core (his quest to “save” Salima from her family – that would rather see her die than appear on TV – is a browbeaten thematic point in the film).  The whole film culminates in a ridiculously improbable standoff between Richie, Salima’s family, and another local warlord that strains even modest credibility to the max.  

Levinson’s RAIN MAN and GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM days just might be long behind him (his last truly great film was nearly twenty years ago with 1997’s WAG THE DOG, a political satire that worked masterfully well).  ROCK THE KASBAH has such limitlessly esteemed people in front of and behind the camera that it became positively headache inducing pondering how the film failed to work on most intended levels.  With such A-grade talent, it’s frankly depressing how flatly the overall film registers.  ROCK THE KASBAH struggles for a purpose and is on very rocky ground as a teeth-clenched, pulls-no-punches industry satire.  Even the remarkable performance good will of Murray can’t save it from amateurish mediocrity…but he tries.  I’ll concede that.  

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